RC Research: Online Writing Instruction

Online Writing Courses: From Crisis to Sustainability

By Bethany Mannon, Georgia Privott, Elliot Froese, and Ali Huffstetler

The Rhetoric and Composition program thought our shift online in March 2020 would be a short-term response to the pandemic and anticipated that we could return to f2f classes in the fall. Before COVID-19, our program offered only a limited number of writing courses online. We had never offered first year writing online because community and interaction are so important to that course. However, NC saw a spike in COVID-19 cases in Summer 2020 and demand for online first-year writing persisted. 

Bethany developed a study of our online courses because she had helped faculty move online and wanted to know where they experienced success and challenges. She also saw a need for research on faculty experiences with Online Writing Instruction (OWI). When scholars have studied OWI, they tend to ask how the online environment affects the writing process, look at what students say about their learning, or propose effective practices for course design and teaching. This research has been valuable, but we have more to learn about how faculty implement best practices and what they can tell us about how students learn and grow in online writing courses.


Study Design and Timeline: Spring 2021



Moving courses online interrupted our “normal” approach to first-year writing. As Jackson and Weaver argue in their introduction to Writing in Online Courses, “the online environment calls into question the ‘givens’ of the traditional classroom” (xviii). This shift created a kairotic moment to research the factors that create a resilient writing program and lead to faculty and student success. 


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Undergraduate Research

Our Team

Undergraduate researchers working on thsi study gained experience conducting and coding professional interviews. As Elliot pointed out, their dual perspective as both students and researchers provided a wider context our team could use when evaluating the effectiveness of professors’ teaching strategies.

Researchers also noticed the effort professors wanted to put in. Georgia commented “I think a lot of times students just see the assignments and think our professors expect us to know exactly what's going on, when in reality the professor is going through that same internal conflict of struggling with online communication.”  This study highlighted what's going on behind the scene -- the struggles and achievements of both professors and students in a new online environment.

Ali Huffstetler summed up the experience:

"It was so enlightening to see professors as the humans that they are, as they mentioned their own personal struggles during the COVID-19 era. As a student, I’ve hardly ever seen this and I think there is typically a big stigma surrounding this emotional vulnerability. I think our research was very timely, as it helped us to see that both students and professors have individual experiences that have an effect on their studies outside of the pandemic, as well.

Our research definitely helped to set the stage for change, both to the online and physical classroom, making learning and teaching sustainable for everyone in the classroom and making mental health and empathy a key part of academia."

Next Steps

Our goals were to create ongoing professional development for faculty and map an intentional, sustainable approach to OWI that will serve us in the future. We hope we’ll never see another pandemic on this scale, but we know natural disasters or regional crises that interrupt f2f course delivery are possible in the future. 

OWI Training

Based on this data, we’ve created a training for teachers who want to develop online courses in the future. This training covers the deep research on online writing pedagogy, questions of inclusion and accessibility in online classes, and strategies for helping students grow as writers and critical thinkers in a digital environment.


Data gathered at App State will also be relevant to a national audience of writing and rhetoric scholars and teachers. We are planning two peer-reviewed articles (or maybe more!) to share this research with readers who are looking to implement OWI principles and asking how a writing program moves from crisis response to a sustainable online curriculum.

A Word of Thanks

Thank you to the Conference on College Composition & Communication for supporting this research with an Emergent Researcher Award and to the Appalachian State University Research Council for supporting this research with a URC Grant. 

Thank you also to Casey McArdle and Jessie Borgman, creators of the Online Writing Instruction Community, for their guidance on translating this research into an OWI training that would serve our faculty.

And many, many thanks to the App State faculty who shared their experiences with us!